Thursday, November 14, 2013

Math Fun with Dice

I hear it a lot. "I hate math." "Math is boring." "I'm no good at math." "I just don't get it." It really doesn't have to be that way. I swear!

One of the best things about math, especially at the elementary and middle school levels is that so much can be learned through game play. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, negative and positive integers, exponents, currency, probability and even basic algebra can all be practiced through game play.

For this post, I'm going to focus in on dice games, because they are inexpensive, extremely portable and offer tremendous variety. That last one is really important. Any game gets boring after a while, and for kids that hate math, keeping game play fresh is vital.

One of the most popular commercially available games is aptly called "Math Dice." Using three six-sided dice and two ten-sided scoring dice, students can play a variety of games. The most popular scenario is to roll the die and figure out how to add, subtract, multiply or divide to reach a "target" number. This type of game encourages the kind of problem solving and mental math skills the students need. It can be played independently, collectively or competitively, and has been used in classrooms and for math tournaments for years. At only $6/set, Math Dice is a great addition to any game shelf. There is also a Math Dice Jr. for younger children.

There are other less well-known math games available out there as well -- 4-Way Count Down, Even Steven's Odd, Double Shutter -- just to name a few! And don't forget other games that, while not being specifically made for teaching math, do contain elements that practice important skills. For example, Yahtzee requires a great deal of number play and addition, as do the fun variants on the theme, like Flash and Yamslam.

One of my personal favorites, that you may not have played before, is call Cosmic Wimpout. "In this game that consists of five dice and nothing else, play proceeds by rolling the five Cosmic Wimpout cubes and get points for each 5, 10, or Flash (triplet) that you roll. You can accumulate points towards the Winning Total by ending your turn or risking it all, because if you roll and don't score, you lose all the points for that turn and the next player goes." It's fast-paced, challenging, exciting and tons of fun. Kids will not know they're practicing math. I keep this tube of dice in my backpack at all times. It's just that good. Farkle tends to travel with me too.

Now, say you don't want to have to buy a bunch of games. Maybe you have some dice sitting around at home, lonely and unused. Perfect! You're ready to start playing some math games!

Start with a visit to Scholastic's 4 Great Math Games. There you'll learn favorites like Pig. A player rolls two dice and mentally adds them. This player can keep on rolling and adding to their total for as long as they want. However, if they roll a 1 before they choose to stop, they're total for the round is 0. If they roll two 1's, their entire total is reduced to 0. The first player to reach 100 points wins.

Teachers will appreciate the printable instructions and score sheets at Math Salamanders. My favorite is "Spot the Calculation." In this game, a student roles three dice and makes a calculation. The other player must guess what operations they used to get that answer.

Meanwhile, Activity Village has lots of classic math games like Mountain and Mouse, many of which are perfect for young students who are still learning to identify numbers. For example, in Mountain, you make or print a drawing of the hill with the numbers 1-6 going up the side to the top and then 6-1 down the other. Students start at the bottom of the hill with a marker. The first student rolls a die, hoping for a 1, because they must roll each number in order to move up or down the mountain. If they don't roll the needed number, they can't move. This is great for kids to learn to recognize their numbers and to practice counting with the dots on the dice.

And Didax Education offers a small selection of dice games for algebraic thinking that are great for middle schoolers. You can use their samples, or make your own similar games. It's easy! Try this: Onto index cards, either copy a few simple algebraic expression from a textbook or  make your own. Mix up the cards and place them face down on the table. A student, flips the top card and rolls a die. She then substitutes the number on the die into the expression for the variable and solves. Each player rolls their die and does the same, writing down their answer. Play continues until all the expression cards are used. Players then add their solutions together. The highest number wins.

For teaching negative and positive numbers, I like this simple game. First print or create a simple number line and find a small marker that fits on it. Then find two dice, each a different color. One color represents a positive number, the other negative. The student rolls both dice and selects one to start with. They mark that number on the number line. Then using the other, they count from that spot the amount on the other die, moving in the correct direction. The place they land is the sum of the two numbers. I usually have them write out the equation then. Once they get the hang of this, I add dice, making the equations longer or swap in 10 or 12 sided die to practice with larger sums. This game is especially useful for students that don't understand how positive and negative integers work.

So I hope you have some new ideas for fun dice games to play with your favorite math student.

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